It’s funny how reading solves problems differently in Matilda and Push.
I don’t know about you but I will always have a special place in my heart for Matilda. For any Roald Dahl book for that matter. This story about a young English girl whose academic gifts free her from the confines of her excruciatingly ordinary family and cruel schoolmaster brings tears to my eyes. It’s a recapitulation of the importance of books and the empowerment they award the beholder.
Having read Matilda as a wee pre-adolescent (Dudley Branch Library, baby! I borrowed Matilda, James & Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and The BFG all on the same day…considered stealing The BFG and Matilda, but that’s neither here nor there) and Sapphire’s 1996 Push novel, I can’t help but notice how literacy saves the day in unique ways for both.
See, Matilda is a super intellectual. She is able to rise beyond her dire circumstances because she is so much smarter than the people around her. That’s how she’s able to play those funny pranks on her father. In Push, Claireece Precious Jones, the novel’s obese teenage protagonist, doesn’t even know how to read. Her salvation comes from being introduced to literacy from having no literacy at all making her redemption is a very subtle one.
When Precious meets Ms. Rain, her new teacher at her new alternative school, she is pregnant with her father’s baby. Ms. Rain encourages her to write down her thoughts in a journal. Although her writing is very elementary, writing about her experiences as a young black girl in Harlem and about her unborn son proves to be very cathartic. But this isn’t a catharsis of the Hollywood blend where Precious’s life magically is delivered from ruin. Precious is still academically miles away from getting her GED and on top of that contracts HIV from own father.
Matilda, on the other hand, is not only a genius, but her abilities also extend to the supernatural. Not only does she have a firm grasp of the classics, but she also discovers her uncanny ability to move objects with her mind. This power ultimately helps her escape her underachieving family and liberates her tormented teacher Ms. Honey from the evil Miss. Trunchbull.
Ms. Rain is very similar to Ms. Honey by the way. Encouragers. Surnames of purging liquids. Gotta love teachers. Wink wink.
But of course I have to bring it to race. Why does the Push, the narrative of a black girl, have to be one of pathology and not Matilda? If we really analyze the essence of the these two books, we see that both are the story of the dysfunctional family, except that Matilda is one of neglect (a family that doesn’t cater to their Matilda’s intellectual needs) and Push is one of abuse (physical abuse from the mother, sexual abuse from the father).
Are both of these books doing social damage by reinforcing stereotypes? I don’t know. But the fact that literacy is the divine apparatus that reverses some of these issues prevents me from delving deeper into the issue.